By Nick Stavas
With other major sports leagues making their triumphant returns this weekend, the UFC isn’t missing a beat. The final event from Fight Island in Abu Dhabi is set to take place on Saturday with yet another UFC Fight Night. This lineup consists of a whopping 15 fights, tying the promotion’s record for the most bouts in a single night, which was set at UFC II in 1994. In the headliner, former champion Robert Whittaker looks to get back in the win column after losing his belt last October as he squares off against potential top contender Darren Till in a highly-anticipated and ever-important middleweight scrap. That fight and a few more exciting bouts are covered below as we highlight our favorite bets on Saturday’s loaded card.
Main Card (8 P.M. ET on ESPN)
– #1 Robert Whittaker vs. #5 Darren Till – Middleweight Bout
– #15 Shogun Rua vs. Antonio Nogueira – Light Heavyweight Bout
– #14 Fabricio Werdum vs. Alexander Gustafsson – Heavyweight Bout
– #7 Carla Esparza vs. #9 Marina Rodriguez – Women’s Strawweight Bout
– Paul Craig vs. Gadzhimurad Antigulov – Light Heavyweight Bout
– Alex Oliveira vs. Peter Sobotta – Welterweight Bout
– Khamzat Chimaev vs. Rhys McKee – Welterweight Bout
Prelims(5 P.M. ET on ESPN)
– Francisco Trinaldo vs. Jai Herbert – Lightweight Bout
– Nicolas Dalby vs. Jesse Ronson – Welterweight Bout
– Tom Aspinall vs. Jake Collier – Heavyweight Bout
– Movsar Evloev vs. Mike Grundy – Featherweight Bout
– Tanner Boser vs. Raphael Pessoa Nunes – Heavyweight Bout
– #13 Bethe Correia vs. Pannie Kianzad – Women’s Bantamweight Bout
– Ramazan Emeev vs. Niklas Stolze – Welterweight Bout
– Nathaniel Wood vs. John Castaneda – Bantamweight Bout
Robert Whittaker (-125) vs. Darren Till (+100)
Just hours after Dana White announced that a title fight between current UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and undefeated contender Paulo Costa was booked for September, sixth-ranked Jack Hermansson submitted seventh-ranked Kelvin Gastelum in the first round at Fight Night last Saturday.
Needless to say it was a wild day for the division.
Now, it has the chance to get even crazier with a clash between former champion Robert Whittaker and middleweight upstart Darren Till. These UFC veterans each started their careers at welterweight before making the move up to 185 pounds and it has served both of them well. Whittaker is 4-1 since moving up a weight class, his only loss coming in his last fight against Adesanya. Whittaker is a fantastic striker with elite Muay-Thai kickboxing skills and dangerous power. His grappling and jiu-jitsu is also top notch, having recorded six pro wins by submission.
Those grappling skills could prove to be critical for Whittaker on Saturday, as he holds a clear advantage over Till in that regard (at least on paper). Till is a world class striker with a very unorthodox, boxing-heavy fighting style. His punches do a lot of damage when landed cleanly and he’s also displayed some pretty nasty dirty-boxing tactics in the clinch. He stands in an awkward karate-like position and uses long looping attacks to land punches from all sorts of angles. With his wide range of skills, Till has the potential to become a top contender in the near future, but he has had a rough couple outings recently. He was choked out by Tyron Woodley back in 2018, knocked out by Jorge Masvidal in his hometown last March, and then recorded a respectable but somewhat questionable split decision victory over Gastelum back at UFC 244. Overall, it’s hard to say exactly how good Till is at middleweight considering he only has one fight in the weight class and has yet to face a top five opponent, let alone the #1 contender.
In the midst of Israel Adesanya’s rapid rise to superstardom, it almost seems as if the MMA world has forgotten about Whittaker. However, prior to losing to Adesanya, Whittaker had won nine straight UFC fights and was widely regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. At just 29-years-old, I find it hard to believe that one loss to arguably the best striker in UFC history completely sidetracked Whittaker’s career. After a long layoff and an extensive training camp, all signs point to Whittaker being back to his normal dominant self. For that reason, I expect Whittaker to essentially bulldoze Till here. There just isn’t a lot of evidence to say that Till can compete with the top-tier middleweights. Don’t get me wrong, Till certainly has the ability to land a big counterpunch and end the fight in an instant, but I see this bout being less of a stand-and-bang brawl and more of a calculated approach from both fighters. Also, as I said above, if this fight gets taken to the ground there’s no doubt in my mind that Whittaker holds the advantage. Clearly fellow gamblers and Vegas oddsmakers believe in Till to a certain extent given the fact that he’s such a slight underdog, but I’m not buying it.
Best Bet: Whittaker ML (-125)
– Nick Stavas (@nickstavas)
Alexander Gustafsson (-345) vs. Fabricio Werdum (+260)
Aside from the main event, this card is starting to feel like a retirement party. Between Alexander Gustafsson, Fabricio Werdum, Shogun Rua and Antonio Noguiera, the average age is 39. Yikes. Granted, all four of those guys are UFC greats and deserve respect in their own right, but it seems as Dana White was just kind of reaching to fill up a card here.
Regardless, we get what we get. So what do we get from Gustafsson? If you’ve been following MMA in the slightest over the past 10 years you’re familiar with Alexander Gustafsson. Most famous for his iconic slugfest with pound-for-pound champion Jon Jones, Gustafsson is the owner of some of the most entertaining and legendary fights in the promotion’s history. He has masterclass boxing, exceptional hand speed and some dangerous knockout power. The question mark for Gustafsson in this one is the fact that he’s moving up a weight class. Historically, when fighters move from light heavyweight to heavyweight it doesn’t typically bode well for them, with the exception of Daniel Cormier. When Gustafsson weighed in Friday morning, he looked a little chunky and much different from his normal self, but that’s to be expected when a fighter packs on 35 pounds.
As for Fabricio Werdum he’s, well… old. And he showed it his last time out. At some books, Werdum was as big as a -400 favorite against Alexey Oleinik. Unfortunately for people who assumed Werdum was an absolute lock (me), Oleinik pieced him up on the feet and Werdum lost the fight pretty handily. Werdum was extremely slow and stagnant on his feet but his grappling still looked decent. The former heavyweight champion is undoubtedly the best tap out artist in the history of the division, with 11 of his 23 pro wins coming via submission. The issue for Werdum, especially at this age, is that every fight starts on the feet.
Considering the fact that both of these men have already hinted at retirement and have seemingly lost a step over the past few years, I think this fight will be wildly disappointing. I expect a slow and sloppy 15 minutes, with Werdum constantly trying to grapple and Gustafsson playing defense the entire time. I would obviously have to lean Gustafsson as the winner here based solely off Werdum’s last performance, but I think the over is a safer bet. If you combine each fighter’s last five bouts, 9 out of 10 made it past the third round. Given this is a three round fight, the over is definitely my favorite play here.
Best Bet: Over 2.5 Rounds (+105)
Value Bet: Fight goes the distance (+120)
– Nick Stavas (@nickstavas)
Movsar Evloev (-195) vs. Mike Grundy (+155)
When handicapping betting picks, I don’t like to put too much weight on the team that a fighter belongs to, but it’s impossible not to do that here. Fighters who train at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand have been on an absolute tear lately. The world renowned camp has housed UFC champions such as Alexander Volkanovski, Petr Yan and Valentina Shevchenko. It is also the primary camp of lightweight prospect Rafael Fiziev, who, if you have a short memory, beat the brakes off Marc Diakiese at Fight Night last week. I’m on record saying that Trevor Wittman’s unnamed squad that consists of fighters such as Kamaru Usman, Rose Namajunas and Justin Gaethje is the hottest team in MMA right now, but TMT is beginning to rival them.
On Saturday, TMT is sending yet another fighter to battle in the undefeated Movsar Evloev. Evloev follows the same blueprint as many of his fellow TMT athletes. In fact, he draws a lot of similarities to his training partner Petr Yan. Evloev is a fluid boxer with fantastic head movement and powerful kicks. He’s also a Master of Sport in Greco Roman wrestling and has competed at a world class level. Evloev throws a high volume of strikes to get his opponents backing up in an effort to eventually take them to the ground. He’s sound in all aspects of MMA and with a 12-0 record he has the potential to become a serious contender.
However, Evloev will need to be careful in taking this fight to the canvas Saturday as his counterpart, Mike Grundy, is a submission specialist in the purest form of the term. Out of his 12 pro wins, Grundy has a jaw dropping eight wins by submission, methods ranging anywhere from an arm triangle to a keylock to a guillotine. Grundy’s submissions can be so sudden that he poses a serious threat from any ground position. While he isn’t an elite striker, Grundy can usually hold his own on the feet just long enough to secure a takedown.
There are a lot of similarities between these two fighters in terms of style, but there are some discrepancies in terms of skill. Evloev is the better all around fighter and holds a significant advantage on the feet. Grundy typically keeps his guard high and displays decent defense but Evloev’s kicks and punches will likely start doing damage as the fight wears on. I also feel as if Evloev’s wrestling ability will allow him to fend off whatever sort of submission attempts Grundy throws his way. This scrap will likely take some time to develop, but once both fighters are in their groove it could have Fight of the Night potential. Either way, I think Evloev walks away victorious here.
Best Bet: Evloev ML (-195)
Value Bet: Evloev by decision (+110)
– Nick Stavas (@nickstavas)